Genealogy, Immigration, Montreal, Quebec, Scotland

Polio in the Family

My Auntie Elsie McHugh was quite a chatterbox and so were her budgies. When we used to visit her, the budgies filled the room with the sound of their chatter, competing to be heard. Unless it was time to go to bed, or someone was coming in the door, the budgies were free to fly around the apartment. It was quite an adventure to go there.

My Uncle Jimmy Scott was usually sitting in his favourite chair, not saying a word.

Certainly when I remember Elsie, I think about her continual stream of conversation and story-telling. But I also remember that she had a distinct limp.  This didn’t stop her from being a snazzy dresser or wearing fancy shoes.

Scott, Jimmy and Elsie McHugh

Jimmy Scott and Elsie McHugh

As an adult, I learned that Auntie Elsie limped because she was stricken with paralytic polio when she was an infant living in Dundee, Scotland at the beginning of the 1900s.1 While today, polio is almost eradicated, at that time it would have been a frightening disease.

Only Elsie, out of the family of seven children, contracted poliomyelitis, the medical term for polio. Dr. Ivar Wickman of Sweden proved that polio was contagious in 1905. This was probably after Elsie was sick. And it was not until the 1930s that it was discovered that it was an intestinal infection and spread by the oral-fecal route, and not an airborne virus, as previously thought.2

During Elsie’s childhood, the family lived in a tenement in industrial Dundee, near the jute factories. There was overcrowding and poor sanitation.

In children, paralysis from polio occurs one in a thousand cases. Most children are simply sick and consequently develop an immunity to it.3 It is probable that Elsie’s siblings were also exposed to polio, but they suffered from no permanent consequences.

Because young Elsie limped and probably could not run or jump very well, she was considered disabled or “crippled.” As a result, she attended a special school to learn cooking, needlework and housekeeping. The other girls in the family resented the special education that Elsie received.

In Scotland, children had to attend school between the ages of five and thirteen. In addition, the morals and tenets of the Church of Scotland were influential. The church believed that children should be taught to be self-sufficient.4 Therefore, there was considerable pressure on educational institutions to provide for all children, including the blind, deaf and physically disabled.

Throughout the 1800s, institutions for the blind and deaf were opened in the major cities in Scotland.5 It is likely that Elsie attended one of these institutions as some of them expanded to include “cripples.”

The family immigrated to Montreal, Canada in 1912. Elsie was fourteen and would have finished her schooling by then. As far as I know she always worked in a department store as a saleslady, but like many women at the time, she quit her job when she married Jimmy Scott in 1926.6 Her daughter, Norine Scott, was born the next year. 7

Many people who have had polio in childhood experience symptoms of fatigue, weakness in the muscles, pain and breathing problems later on in their lives.8 I remember Auntie Elsie used to have difficulty breathing but she always said that it was old age.  Elsie never let anything get in the way of her enjoying life and she lived to the respectable age of 91.9

She did put her skills to good use at home, cooking for the family and sewing. I have inherited her Singer sewing machine, although I don’t sew at all. The machine works by pushing on a lever with your knee. It is a lovely piece of furniture in my home and, more importantly, a beautiful keepsake of my Auntie Elsie.

sewing machine

 

  1. Birth register of Elsie McHugh, November 10, 1898, District of St. Mary, Burgh of Dundee, National Records of Scotland, Scotland’s People web site, accessed December 1, 2017.
  2. Post-Polio Health International, History of Acute Polio, Tony Gould, unknown date, http://www.post-polio.org/edu/aboutpol/hist.html, accessed January 28, 2019.
  3. Wikipedia, History of Poliomyelitis, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_poliomyelitis, accessed January 28, 2019.
  4. The Semantic Scholar, Voices from the Past, Early Institutional Experience of Children with disabilities – The case of Scotland, Iain Hutchison, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f5d8/80cd842c518f3bc8a2dd3f5fb4e359eecf7e.pdf, accessed January 28, 2019.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Personal notes of author.
  7. Personal notes of author.
  8. Post-Polio Health International, History of Acute Polio, Tony Gould, unknown date, http://www.post-polio.org/edu/aboutpol/hist.html, accessed February 6, 2019.
  9. Personal notes of author.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.